Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sutherland Institute Reaches for Pro-Voucher "Data"

As we round the corner on the voucher vote, The Sutherland Institute is launching a strangely aggressive campaign for a think-tank that is beginning to look, for want of a better word, desperate. Yesterday, SI issued a press release proclaiming the irrelevance of teacher certification:

While the voucher program does not require “certification” for their teachers, studies show certification has no statistically-significant relationship to actual teaching ability, job performance, and student achievement. The best current methodological research shows that true ability is the key to a teacher’s effectiveness, not an “official stamp of approval.”

“Teaching is both an art and a science, and teacher ‘certification’ is what it is – a certificate that says a person went through and passed a series of classes,” said Derek Monson, education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute. “While quality teachers are extremely important for student achievement, ‘certified’ does not mean ‘qualified.’”
Seems kind of a no-brainer, but if they want to call it press-release worthy, so be it. Does it mean certification is useless?

I hesitate to make a comparison between education and private business (as so many in the pro-voucher camp like to do), but for the sake of arguing with means they understand, consider if you will the IT technology fields. Specifically, network design and IT management.

It is a common misconception in the IT field that certification is the mother of all requirements to make a living as an independent contractor. Often it seems the only people concerned with certification are the groups (Cisco, IEEE, etc) who offer the certification, and competing peers in the industry. Customers don't care, and are often completely unaware of the existence or significance of technical certifications.

However, the entire industry, top to bottom, is driven by standards, and without a doubt the simple process of certification has served as a powerful force behind standard promotion, and homogeneous design and deployment. I have met technicians and IT professionals who had certifications covering every inch of their office, yet no skill whatsoever when it comes to planning, maintaining, or customer satisfaction in large or small jobs. I have also met 60 year old technicians who began their career wiring for Ma Bell who, and with no formal training have become quite adept at their work.

Regardless, if I accept the Sutherland Institute's logic in their efforts to push school vouchers on us, I would have to assume that because it isn't the ultimate litmus test for aptitude, I should disregard technical certification entirely. Because I cannot judge myself or a competitor when approaching a customer based solely on certifications, certifications are meaningless? No. In fact, certification in the technical industry, while not the central beacon of aptitude, has played a very important role in standardizing the "basics" from top to bottom. It allows manufacturers and software developers to build their product (or cirriculum if you will, to draw the comparison with education) with the understanding that with adherence to certifiable standards, their product can be deployed more effectively, and have at least a modicum of insurance that basic "best practices" will be used by a majority of technicians.

Certification in the technology industries does not guarantee a certain level of skill, but it does further ensure compliance to an extent that at least the foundation ideals will be employed before greater experience is pursued. Using a model similar to private schools and accredidation, manufactures and customers would be interacting through technicians who install the fastest, or charge the least, or even "use the most duct tape to cut connector costs." The metrics chosen to label "success" under an accredidation-like system of evaluation in a technology based endeavor would give credit of achievement possibly without consideration of actual functionality. For example, consider a computer technician in your office who plugs everything in correctly, understands basic maintenance and repair, but has this annoying habit of "not liking things on tables," and you now work at floor level. It is a primitive example, but effective.

Growing up in a "teaching" household, I have heard all of the stories. I know that any idiot can attain a certification to work in any teaching field or enterprise. I also know that without at least an attempt at standardizing "best practice" requirements for new teachers, it becomes more "art" than "science," to borrow SI's own words. There is much more to teaching than test scores and criminal background checks. Cirriculum planning is only one example of many issues left un-addressed by the Sutherland Istitutes research.

Say what you will about the failures of our public school system, or the beauty of private school (or home schooling, or charter schooling), and vote your conscience on November 6th of course, but don't disregard the importance of teacher certification because in and of itself it does not absolutely guarantee skill. Recognize the fact that certification breeds an environment where skill can develop more quickly and more effectively through a standard foundation, at bare minimum.


  1. First of all, I have to say that I appreciate you taking some time to consider our research and press-release and post a blog on the issue. I think teacher certification is a very important issue, both in the context of the voucher debate and in the broader context of education in general.

    Just to inform you, I also think that teacher certification is an issue that has been abused by many in the voucher debate, and that is what motivated our fact sheet and press release on the matter. That being said, I think that you completely missed the point of our fact sheet.

    In the context of the voucher debate, teacher certification has been used, mainly by anti-voucher groups, as a way in which the voucher bill fails Utah's families. The reasoning behind this argument is that the current form of teacher certification should be required of voucher schools to ensure Utah's kids are getting quality teachers, and since there is no such requirement in HB148 it opens up potential voucher families to a hoard of uncertainties in the teachers that they will get in private schools.

    The entire point of our fact sheet was that the best scientific research shows this argument is baseless and without any merit whatsoever. The current form of teacher certification has no significant relationship to quality teaching. Does it mean that teacher certification is meaningless in general and should be done away with? Of course not! But it does mean that in it's current form it's meaningless in determining teacher quality; something we think is worth consideration in the current voucher debate.

    Because certification isn't a "litmus test for aptitude" like anti-voucher groups argue it is, shouldn't we in the broader sense question our current method of certification? I agree with you that certification promotes standards, but if certification and those standards do not help produce quality (as shown by scientific research) then what good are those standards doing us?

    In the end a certification such as this is what it is: a piece of paper saying you sat through a number of pedogogical classes that make no difference on the quality of your teaching. The current certification process doesn't improve teaching because sitting in classrooms for 1-2 years has no connection to being able to stand up in front of 20-30 children and helping them learn something substantive. When our certification process is based on that standard, then I think we'll have a certification that means something.

    As is, the current certification process also deters qualified individuals from teaching in public schools because they don't want to sit in classrooms for 12 months or more to get a piece of paper that says they are qualified to teach children about the fields they have been working in for years. Should they receive some type of basic training? Of course! But why not understand the reality that the training these individuals will need is going to be different than that of a 20 year old in college? We talk more and more about teacher shortages in this state, but we don't have the courage to acknowledge that we are in part creating our own problem by deterring qualified individuals.

    Like I said in the press release: teaching is both an art and a science. It requires knowledge in your field, a selfless concern for the learning of your students, and an ability to communicate that knowledge to your students. The existing research shows us that the current certification process accomplishes few if any of those requirements. Therefore lets change it so it makes sense and helps rather than hurts our ability to attract quality teachers into our public schools in Utah.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on my response.


  2. Derek,

    While I still question the factual objectivity of a "think tank" press release on flaws in the public system days before the voucher vote, I appreciate very much your taking the time to post such a thoughtful response here. Your parsing of the flaws in our current certification system is well said. Our public schools system does need a revamping in many ways, and certification would be a great place to start.

    However, the supposition by many is that such flaws in our teacher certification system, or our gravely underfunded public school system are reason to support an even more deeply flawed voucher system that I believe no Utahn should get behind.

    Reform in the public school system is long overdue, and the debate on our legislature's attitude toward funding has been a long time coming. Regardless, the voucher system up for vote in a few short days is flawed beyond having any actual effect on the majority of Utahn's with children currently attending schools, especially in predominant rural areas. Many are arguing we give vouchers a "trial run," but ask yourself, have we first given our public education system a fair shake with adequate funding and support? No.

    Of course our current system has it's own flaws, but do those flaws in public education stem from an innate inability to perform systematically, or are those flaws the result of the lack of importance our leadership has traditionally shown for education in general? Have we so fully explored the possibilities of a well funded public education system that we are now ready to scrap the idea and turn our children's future over to private industry? Or have we given education a half-assed nod occasionally, and are now looking for reasons to contract out our children's future?

    No data or voucher program currently in place supports a voucher program as a means to any real or pertinent education system reform. The program currently running in DC has had zero effect on student performance, teacher quality, or even the volume of available private schools. In fact, their system has primarily been utilized by those already in a financial position to utilize private schools without the vouchers. If we are going to redistribute public moneys for our children's education, is it in our best interest to assist the wealthy? And where are the numbers that tell us the voucher program will lead to a sudden boom in private schooling institutions from Moab to Cache Valley? Quite simply, such data does not exist.

    The foundation ideology of the voucher system is to create a competitive "market" in education. No such market exists. To create such a market, Utah families state-wide would have to have easy access to public and private schools, and that schools be free from a burden of excessive regulation and tuition restrictions. Nothing about the currently proposed voucher system would address these issues, therefore no competitive market would be created. The majority of our education "market" would still be dominated by a government "monopoly" which is not going away (nor will it ever). School vouchers will have no effect on creating such a competitive market, and therefore would simply take money from an already burdened public system. So while voucher supporters would love to tout the inevitability of the "Blackwater School for the Deaf," they seldom acknowledge that school vouchers really have little effect on promoting a more competitive, innovative "market." And an important distinction to make here is that we are discussing the education of our children, not the availability of cheap DSL.

    Nationally, and even more so locally, we have not shown proper respect for our public school system. That is where the reform is needed. Using flaws in an underfunded system as reason to open the door to privatizing our children's education is akin to decrying the failure of your Honda Accord when it runs out of gas.

    It is unfortunate, but the politics have gotten a bit tainted by those more ethically challenged in this debate, so, again, I appreciate your thoughts, and thank you for taking the time to post them. Such dialog does more justice to Utahn's than any amount of Oreo's could ever achieve.

  3. I agree with many of the points that you made in your response, Jason, and I always appreciate an opportunity to have a constructive discussion on important political issues, so thanks for responding to my post.

    While I disagree with you that the voucher system up for referrendum is more flawed than our current system (I think that both have their imperfections and that the question of which set of imperfections are worse depends upon one's educational needs), I agree with you that the public school system's imperfections are not a substantial enough reason to support the current voucher bill. There must be a greater public policy argument than "the old system doesn't work."

    I don't think we should scrap the public education system for this reason. In fact, I don't think we should scrap the public education system at all. This system works well for many parents and children. However, I think your post reflects a fundamental disagreement in how we view education in this state and which I will attempt to make clear. In the end we may just agree to disagree; I can respect that because I think you make your points in a civil manner and have put a lot of thought into what you write. I respect you for that.

    I think the debate on education should not be about systems, it should be about assisting parents provide a basic education to all of Utah's children.

    While Utah law stipulates that a public education system is to be maintained, it also states that "a parent has the right, obligation, responsibility, and authority to...educate...the parent's children." The following line reads "the state's role is secondary and supportive to the primary role of a parent." (62A-4a-201). The educational debate should NEVER be about parents supporting systems. It should be about the system supporting parents. If the system is not serving parents well, we should change that system (but definitely not scrap it if it serves many parents well, such as the public school system).

    Thus while the proposed voucher system seems much more flawed to you than the public school system, it's likely because it was never meant to serve someone like you. However there are thousands of parents out there that would like to use it, many of whom will not have access to anything but publicly funded schools without it (if you don't believe this, see the Children First Utah website--a privately funded voucher program that gives only half-tuition scholarships--their waiting list is over 2000 students).

    The state has a legal responsibility to do more for these parents than to say "we'll give you more of what you already don't want." Some legislators understood this during the last legislative session, hence they voted for the voucher bill. Many however did not.

    We may be tempted to argue that we can serve those parents better by "adequately funding" the public school system. I think it too much however to expect one system to meet all the requirements of so many children that have such diverse educational needs and unique ways of learning. We talk a lot about expecting to much of our public school teachers; this is one of the worst such expectations in my mind because it expects the impossible.

    This may be obvious but from my perspective your question of "have we first given our public education system a fair shake with adequate funding and support" is the wrong question to ask. What we should be asking is have we given parents whose children do not fit well into the public school system a fair shake with adequate funding and support? For high-income families, I would say yes. For low-income families, I would say no. This voucher bill is a step in that direction.

    I want to make clear that I don't think this voucher bill is the best step in that direction. If I could have my way, I would limit the vouchers to low- and maybe middle-income families and bump up the voucher amounts significantly. Should the voucher bill be enacted, that will be something that we at Sutherland will advocate for.

    I could debate with you about what the most rigorous research on voucher systems has shown concerning student achievement, public school innovation, and competition, but after writing about such weightier educational issues these smaller points pale in comparison and I think for now I'll end my post. While I may disagree with you on some things, I think your blog has been one of the most constructive blogs that I've responded to during the voucher debate, I'll be sure to check back on it in the future. Is there a way to be notified by email or something when you make a new post? If so I'd like to sign up. Take care.


    P.S. I think your Oreo comment was well put, I got a chuckle out of it :)